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Saturday, December 08, 2007

NO TO VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN: Breaking Walls of Silence

By Marianne Rasmussen - First Published: December 6, 2007

November 25 marked the annual day for violence against women. It was also the beginning of a United Nations-led 16-day campaign entitled “Say NO to Violence Against Women”.

“Violence against women is always a violation of human rights, it is always a crime, and it is always unacceptable,” the Secretary-General of the United Nations stated in his message for the day, emphasizing the gravity of the phenomenon — a gravity which is reflected in the fact that one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused at least once in her lifetime; or by the fact that women aged 15 to 44 are more likely to die or suffer disability as a result of rape or domestic violence than from cancer, motor vehicle accidents, war and Malaria.

Egypt is no exception when it comes to violence against women. According to a demographic health survey from a 2003 report quoted by Unicef, 97 percent of Egyptian women in reproductive age suffer female genital mutilation (FGM). Many women in the region, as elsewhere, continue to suffer abuse in terms of rape – within or outside marriage — or fall victim to “crimes of honor” with the perpetrators receiving lenient sentences.

A study made by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2006, shows that only 89 states had some form of legislative prohibition on domestic violence and only 60 states had specific domestic violence laws. Criminal law in the overwhelming majority of Arab countries considers rape to be an attack on public modesty/decency and not a crime against the person — the recent story of Saudi Arabia’s “Qatif Girl” is one example of this.

Such classification denotes women’s bodies and female sexuality as belonging to the family not to the individual women themselves. The notion of marital rape does not exist in Egypt, as the body of a married woman is “belongs” to her husband. This legislative gap is one of the reasons why violence against women is often ignored and rarely punished. The shame and stigma associated with sexual violence prevents most women from sharing their experiences. This increases feelings of isolation, which often prevent women from accessing the necessary healthcare or legal action. This “invisibility” of sufferers from most forms of violence against women allows many in positions of authority to shun their responsibility to set up support centers for victims, to train and appoint qualified staff to deal with the victims of VAW and punish the perpetrators.

There is one particular aspect of violence against women which is even less noted than the abuse itself — the perpetrators. The actors, motives and rationales behind the crimes disappear in the legal system and are absent from public debate. They are even absent from the concept of violence against women itself.

A less common name of the phenomenon of violence against women is male violence against women, underlining that the violator is a man. The term “male violence” does not, however, sufficiently grasp the scope and variety of the forms violence against women. Female genital mutilation is an example of systematic, institutionalized violence carried out everyday by women as well as men.

Another example of structural and institutionalized violence is when violence against women is used as a weapon of war. According to Amnesty International, 70 percent of the casualties in recent conflicts have been non-combatants; 80 percent of these are women and children. Even as you read this, women in conflict zones such as the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo are reported to be subject to some inconceivable forms of violence. These include keeping women tied up for months, using them as sex slaves, mutilating their bodies, or forcing them to submit to gang rape carried out by their sons, fathers or brothers. Why? Because sexualized violence directed at women, demonstrates the strength of the aggressors, and the powerlessness of their adversaries to protect their women. Women survivors face great difficulties reintegrating into their families and communities, given that societies, in many cases consider them as bearers of their families’ dishonor rather than seeing them as victims.

One of the steps needed to put an end to the systematized and widespread violence is to recognize that it is a problem and that attention must be paid to its root causes. This means acknowledging it is a structural phenomenon, not caused solely by individual men.

It can be argued that it is caused by the historical imbalance of power relations in patriarchal societies between women and men and the resulting domination over, and discrimination against women by men. At the same time both gender-relations and the concept of masculinity need to be critically scrutinized. Individual men’s violence against women is at times excused by a public perception of male sexuality and psyche as being inherently aggressive. States of mind such as jealousy or desire serve as arguments to assuage the punishment and consequences of sexualized violence, and label it as “a crime of passion”.

The fact that the United Nations has marked a special day for violence against women gives hope that things are moving in the right direction. Meanwhile, we can all help to end this violence by acknowledging that the persistence and tolerance of the phenomenon is a fundamental obstacle to women’s full advancement. Men need to foster and encourage a perception of masculinity rooted in responsibility, care and sincere respect for women rather than dominance and aggression.

Women need to find the strength, self-esteem and self-respect within themselves to acknowledge that they are active subjects rather than the de-humanized, passive objects that all violations ultimately turn them into.

Marianne Rasmussen is a Danish journalist currently interning with the United Nations Information Center in Cairo.